Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
Repeat After Me: First Drafts Are Not Supposed to Be Good
It's called a PROCESS for a reason.
I don’t know who needs to hear this…ha ha, I totally do know who needs to hear this, and it’s ME:
FIRST DRAFTS ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE GOOD. They are not supposed to be final. They often don’t even vaguely resemble final drafts.
I’m writing this for myself as much as for anyone else who might need it, because even at my advanced age, I keep forgetting it. Of course, Anne Lamott famously said this way better than I ever could in Bird by Bird, which I have read so many times, but here’s my version of it:
First drafts are embryonic. They are also necessary and can’t be avoided. “Shitty first drafts,” as Lamott calls them, are the clay you throw out onto your potter’s wheel, which you then shape from there. You can’t get to later drafts without them.
I forget and then remind myself of this daily. Unfortunately, as I’m working on an early draft, I tend to lose faith in myself and my basic ability to write. My mood plummets, and I consider giving up my primary means of expression, the thing that matters more to me than anything, a big part of my reason for being. I need to find a way around this part.
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The thing I hate most about my first drafts is that they tend to be very explain-y. As I write, I think, Ugh, this is so boring. Who the hell is going to want to stick with this after starting it? I forget that in early drafts, I am re-telling myself a story, explaining it to myself, which is a necessary step.
Then I take a couple of days away from the piece, and start revising. I start to be reminded of the absurdity in the experience I’m writing about—the element that usually makes me interested in writing about an experience in the first place—and then I’m in business. I remember that my voice is not explain-y, or super serious. It’s sad/funny. That’s my whole shtick. It’s been my whole shtick my entire life, like from the time I was writing pieces for my elementary school’s essay writing contests. So, uh, 45 of my 55 years, give-or-take.
After all that time, you’d think I’d have the hang of this, or be able to just skip straight to the part where I’m making myself both laugh and cry as I revise. But it seems I can’t remember my voice, or find my way into it, until the second or third draft.
Now that I’m working solely on my book for a few months, day after day, it would be helpful to short-circuit this dysfunction, at least the emotionally dysfunctional part, where I lose faith and am hard on myself. That’s a goal. I’m working on it.
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Meet my new *Smart* Bath Mat
My Covid-winter loneliness, depression, and boredom reached new depths last week, and I found myself unconsciously nearly purchasing an iPhone 12 mini as an antidote. Nearly. I bought a $15 bath mat instead.
For the past four years I’ve had an iPhone 6 that I bought used on Gazelle.com. Each winter the battery reliably dies. It goes from 98% charged to 10% charged in two minutes flat, especially if I’m outside in the cold. My husband, Brian, a certified Apple tech, replaces it for me for the $20 or whatever a new battery costs.
For a few hours last week, I came thisclose to upgrading to a new phone. I’m almost never interested in phone upgrades when they’re offered to me. I’m just not excited by technology in that way. But I’ve been taking a lot of photos on my daily walks through parts of Kingston, including some intense sunsets over the Catskills that have lately turned the sky a mind-blowing combination of red, orange, yellow, and purple. With my phone’s sub-par camera, though, they look just salmon-ish. It’s disappointing. And the world is so disappointing right now, I felt like I needed an antidote.
Learning I was eligible for an upgrade dovetailed with an hour one afternoon last week when I felt like avoiding writing. You guessed it—I was in the middle of a first-draft and hating it. Almost involuntarily I got in my car and headed to AT&T, and from the minute I walked in, I felt off. What was I doing? Other than seeking a short-lived dopamine boost?
Yeah, it might have been nice to have an updated phone with a better camera. But then the man helping me explained that the new model would cost me $30 a month for three years, or $700 in one shot. New models don’t come with chargers, or headphones. And you have to also buy an adapter in order to use your old headphones with the new phone.
Really? You have to wait to be eligible to give them money like that? Just to be able to take better sunset photos to post on Instagram?
One part of me was already so primed for the dopamine spike it seemed impossible to walk out without a new phone in hand, but the rest of me was judging myself hard. I called Brian.
“Would it be fucked up of me to get this?” I asked. “I mean, I don’t have a job right now.” The guy helping me just stood there smiling brightly, I suppose trying to uphold the illusion of consumption-related happiness.
This wasn’t me calling my husband for permission, by the way, but rather asking him to act as a sounding board. Brian and I “go dutch” on everything in life. We have since our first date. We each pay our own way, as we should. And we each write off our some of the expenses associated with our phones as part of our freelance businesses.
“It’s really up to you,” he said. “I’d probably get it. But, that’s me.”
"Okay, I’m doing it,” I said.
The guy helping me went to the stock room to get my new phone, but by the time he was standing in front of me again, I had changed my mind. I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I felt bad telling him. I said, “I’m going to think about it.” Which was true. A part of me still thought I might come back in a few days. But once I left the store, I knew I wouldn’t.
I wasn’t ready to go home empty-handed, though. I was still feeling avoidant about writing that early draft of a story for my book. I wanted to be numbed by surrounding myself with abundance, something I learned to do as a tween, when my mom, my sister, and I would go on browsing expeditions to Bloomingdale’s in Garden City in my mom’s beat up Dodge Dart, trying on clothes and makeup, but going home with nothing but a mini Godiva chocolate bar.
In the Kingston mall that houses AT&T there’s also a Bed Bath & Beyond. Almost involuntarily, I aimed my car toward it. At the very least, I thought, I could pick up an extra Soda Stream canister. I’d of course mask up and keep it quick.
In the towel department I remembered that we needed a new bath mat. We have have needed one forever. The frayed, dingy one we have came from my dad and stepmom’s apartment that they moved out of in 2005.
I felt a jolt of excitement deciding I was entitled to this small luxury, and another jolt when I got the bath mat home, removed the tags, and placed it on the tub. Like, I got a little high off buying a bath mat—and knowing I had gotten it instead of a smart phone I didn’t really need.
Each time I look at my new purchase, I think of it as my *smart* bath mat. Because it was smart of me to realize I had been experiencing a need that had nothing to do with the thing I initially sought out as a way to respond to it.
Maybe some day I’ll “upgrade” to being able to purchase nothing at all when I’m feeling that way. And from there, maybe I’ll “upgrade” to being able to say to myself, “I’m feeling avoidant about writing, because I’m stuck in first-draft hell,” notice the feeling, and let it pass. Then I’ll put my ass in the chair again until I’ve gotten to the point where the draft is done and I can put it away for a few days, then revisit it at the next point—the one where I’m reliably able to rediscover my voice, have fun with it, and make the piece better.
In the mean time, I’m going to not be hard on myself about buying a $15 bath mat, and enjoy no longer looking at the old frayed, dingy one that was already pretty sad looking when it was given to me as a hand-me-down 15 years ago.